Last November, I wrote a feature about the “Comfort Women”—the euphemistic term for women captured during the Second World War by the Japanese Imperial Army as sex slaves. A month later, Japan and South Korea reached a settlement to their longstanding dispute over the comfort women. The settlement includes an apology from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and an $8.3 million aid fund from Tokyo for former comfort women.
While this event was praised by international observers, including the US government, many are still not satisfied. Advocates and former comfort women have presented issues with the deal in its current form. For instance, Japan’s apologies and compensation only extend to the comfort women from South Korea, despite remaining survivors and families in other countries across East Asia that suffered under Japan’s terror. Furthermore, the 46 remaining women survivors in South Korea were not consulted on the deal’s terms.
Yet one aspect that has not been in the limelight is Japan’s unchanging attempt to nationalize and whitewash historical educational agendas, which is a barrier to reconciliation among all those affected by the Second World War in Asia.
In December 2015, around the same time that Tokyo and Seoul reached the agreement, a joint statement was released in Perspectives on History published by the American Historical Association. Fifty Japanese scholars—of whom 48 were affiliated with a Japanese institution—demanded corrections to information on comfort women in a high school history textbook Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, published by McGraw-Hill Education.
In late 2014, Japan’s Foreign Ministry told its New York consulate general to ask McGraw-Hill to change the depiction of comfort women in the same textbook. McGraw-Hill continues to stand by the textbook and its historical content.
Distinguishing between governmental intervention and academic peer review, Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, said, “It’s not natural that a government intervenes in academic publication [….] Imagine if Ambassador Caroline Kennedy sent three people from the American embassy in Tokyo to various publishers of school textbooks to examine how Japanese textbooks portray the attack on Pearl Harbor.”
These developments are alarming in the face of the Tokyo-Seoul deal. Recently, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology came out with a list of approved high school textbooks for the 2017 academic year. This list was produced under Prime Minister Abe’s instruction to the education ministry to only approve textbooks promoting nationalism and positions supported by its right-wing government—which entailed screening information about comfort women.
Such parallel movements—one of political reconciliation and the other of historical contestation—are a reminder that the comfort women issue is far from over. Japanese scholars attacking McGraw-Hill for information on comfort women is only one symptom of the whitewashing of Japan’s history. Its own national curriculum, revised for the upcoming academic year, confirms the unchanging nature of its historical revision.
Keeping history alive within education is integral, not only to hold wrongdoers accountable, but to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself. Japan’s war history accounts for a large portion of geopolitical tensions today, and as new generations emerge, the importance of historical accuracy regarding the war is essential.
According to Mariko Oi, in a BBC article, “Japanese people often fail to understand why neighbouring countries harbour a grudge over events that happened in the 1930s and 40s. The reason, in many cases, is that they barely learned any 20th century history. I myself only got a full picture when I left Japan and went to school in Australia.”
There are long ways to go in all post-war treaties—but the first step is always acknowledgement of actions. While political diplomacy has inched forward in the deal between Tokyo and Seoul, true reconciliation between Japan and the nations of comfort women will not occur—nor last—until Japan acknowledges its actions within classrooms and stops meddling in the historical education of other countries.